Plymouth...a pearl on the seashore

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The Devon port prepares for a big music festival but it's the modern buildings in Drake's hometown that catch the eye.

Soon after dawn on this coming Friday, the sun will rise over Plymouth and the university's Roland Levinsky Building will get down with its good self. It will play the Sunlight Symphony.

Actually, that's not quite right. The building won't be playing the symphony; dawn's rosy fingers will. But they will be playing it on the building, the angular, glassy surfaces of which will be to its rosy fingers as a violin is to a bow. Kind of. Nor do the fingers have to be rosy – they can be any colour they like. The important thing is the presence of light and the atmospheric conditions which affect light. There has to be light, otherwise Alexis Kirke's "composition" will not be released into the world via the sensors located all over the structure, and then modulated – even shaped – by the weather. It will be a black and tuneless day indeed in Plymouth if the sun fails to come up. Just for starters, they'll have to cancel the whole Peninsula Arts Festival, which would be a dreadful shame.

It's one of the more interesting music festivals you can go to, if interest for you depends on the programme not being slave to the touring schedules of established circuit names. In fact, it's not unreasonable to suggest that the six-year-old Peninsula is one of our most original cultural festivals. Its bias is towards contemporary music and currently-working composers, with particular emphasis accorded to the sort of contemporary music explored in the university's own computer-music research department. So ... lots of new buttons to be pressed, sounds to be heard, concepts to think about and discussions to be had on the issues arising from music which has been composed not by men in perriwigs but by artificial intelligence. Plus, for those who need a little relief from the strains of cutting-edge contemporaneity, the Peninsula has joined itself to the Plymouth Polish Festival (umbrella title "Continuum") to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Chopin. And, being the Peninsula festival, even Chopin won't be addressed dully. What a busily modern town Plymouth is this winter.

But then it is always modern, or at least Modernist. Arguably, it was the first one in the UK. It is certainly what Jeremy Gould, Professor of Architecture at the university, describes as "our first great welfare-state city", as he swoons before the towering elevation of the much-abused Civic Centre – an urban environment entirely planned, designed and built from the ruins of a bombsite, according to thoroughly modernist principles of democracy.

The Plymouth of Sir Francis Drake and the Pilgrim Fathers, of British naval supremacy and global trade, went west during the war, when the city was subjected to a full-scale Blitz by the Luftwaffe. There were 59 raids in total and the entire city centre was flattened. Reconstructive planning began as early as 1943 with works actually commencing in 1947. There is a tiny, eight-inch-square metal plaque on the side of the old Co-op (now Derry's) to commemorate that fact and a date etched, probably unofficially, into a kerbstone on the rim of the roundabout at Derry's Cross – and that's it as far as monuments to the regeneration project go. But then the idea was not merely to build a city but to seize an opportunity.

Professor Gould is passionate about every aspect of Plymouth's modernist project. As we galumph up and down thoroughfares and across squares and expansive walkways in an eye-watering January blast, he reels off the names of contributing architects and their architectural leitmotifs in an unfaltering stream. He tells me that the project was overseen, to a sort of Beaux-Arts plan, by the architect Sir Patrick Abercrombie and how Abercrombie's political connections in Westminster got things going in Plymouth ahead of the equivalent project at Coventry, or indeed anywhere else in the country.

He explains why so much of Plymouth is made out of handsome, but not exactly local, white Portland stone (the parochial rock is grey). He indicates with sweeping gestures how the entire city centre was conceived around an axial trunk, running north to south, to create an egalitarian grid, spacious, airy, uncomplicated, accessible and gapingly open to all – the very model in stone, brick, glass and metal of the post-war welfare edifice. The shape of a tree.

"Plymouth is different," he says, grinning and leaning in, the wind lashing his hair across his forehead. And it is impossible to argue. Plymouth is our most properly modern city. He then sighs. "If only it was loved a bit more. Looked after. What it needs above all is a little love. But the council just can't see the value of that." Of the dozens of handsome Fifties buildings, both commercial and civic, only eight are listed.

But he is realist (and architect) enough to recognise that problems were unwittingly built into the original plan, and that economic and engineering expediency would have unforeseeable impacts on the outcome of the project. It was the engineering sort of expediency, for instance, which dictated that there should be exact uniformity in the dimensions of many of the box-like retail units, with the result that some of the branches of the city tree are rendered bland and, crucially, too inflexible to bend with the economic winds.

Still, there are recent positives to suggest that there may be a will to love in the town. We are in Pannier Market, a covered market which takes its rippling, shell-like profile from the Festival of Britain aesthetic. It is a fabulous edifice and it's while we stand and gape at the ceiling – and then David Weeks' gorgeous sgraffitoed allegory of the city on the entrance-hall walls – that the prof gives me a few simple figures. They begin to explain why Plymouth's infrastructural ideals and Plymouth's economic reality have not always harmonised.

The city has 250,000 inhabitants, or thereabouts. During the second world war, 40,000 of them worked in the dockyards, rising to 50,000 in the 1960s, during the development of the nuclear submarine programme. The dockyard has been the basis of Plymouth's very identity since the 16th century. Now, in 2010, the dockyard only employs 2,500. The biggest employer in the city is now the university. Gould shrugs and shakes his head, not glumly but frustratedly. "The government says that Plymouth is a 'growth point' – they want the population to rise to 300,000 by 2026."

Based on what?

"Well, I suppose you might call it 'whim'."

TR2 is not a whim, although you could be forgiven for thinking that it might have been one once. This strange metal, glass and chipboard Stirling prize shortlistee thrusts out of shoals of grey local boulders at the water's edge on the eastern, light-industrial side of the city. TR2 is, to give its full title, the Plymouth Theatre Royal's "Production and Creative Learning Centre" – which is a way of saying that its chief function is to build and rehearse stage productions and then educate people on the subject. It's extraordinary. Like a space station bedding itself into a new planet.

And as chance will have it, at the very moment that the prof and I arrive, TR2's architect, Ian Ritchie, and the head honcho of the Theatre Royal, Adrian Vinken, are just leaving. Vinken hastily arranges a quick tour for our benefit and I am shown around the vast, functional yet awkwardly good-looking building. They're frantically constructing a new touring set for Mary Poppins in the main hangar and people are everywhere, their tools chiming. It is of course invidious to make comparisons with the past, even imaginatively, but it is impossible not to stand in such a place in the lee of a half-built metal structure at the ragged fringe of a curtain of blow torch sparks and not think about ships.

The Peninsula/Continuum Festival is co-directed by the conductor/academic Simon Ible and Eduardo R Miranda, the Brazilian Professor of Computer Music at the university. We have a quick lunch together. They make an engaging pair of advocates and it is a lot of fun hearing about where computer music is going next, and where their audiences think they've been taken over the past six years. I am trying to gauge where the festival fits, in layman's terms, in the landscape of British cultural life. We've been going round in a circles a little trying to find that exact spot.

Then Miranda locates the Gordian knot and cuts through it at a stroke. "Yes," he says. "Of course the festival is a showcase for cutting-edge research but rather than being purely academic about it, it is of vital importance to us that what we do fits the real world."

You can tell that he is confident that the sun will rise over Plymouth on Friday, and will continue to do so for some time to come.

The Continuum Festival launches on Friday 26 February

Professor Gould's Top Five Fifties Buildings

1. Pannier Market. This gets the top spot because of its continued use, public accessibility, and soaring blue concrete vaults. Built by Walls & Pearn, a crack team of local architects working with celebrated structural engineer, Albin Chronowicz.

2. The National Provincial Bank (now Royal Bank of Scotland). Second place for its audacity and originality, its extraordinary portico, its blue mosaic (which reflects a shimmering light at night), and its careful use of rich materials (granite, Portland stone, mosaic, copper).

3. The Guildhall. Its reconstruction shows that conservation wasn't a dirty word in the 1950s. It's the best Fifties interior outside London and beautifully made. The integration of good applied art (the glass, the sculpture and murals) show that art and architecture went naturally together.

4. Dingles. Thomas Tait was one of the great British architects of the 20th century, and his work is still not well enough known. This department store was his last major work – he died in 1954. Despite additions to the roofscape, it is a beautiful essay in the use of stone (Portland and Ham Hill) and a fine piece of civic design.

5. The Civic Centre. This is a building that deserves and repays study. It's brave, bold, with genuine civic presence. Internally, it is nothing short of exotic, with fine timber panelling, marble and glass in that new style which marks the end of the 1950s and the beginning of the far more international style of the 1960s.

Compact Facts

How to get there

Nick Coleman travelled to Plymouth courtesy of Peninsula Arts (01752 585050; peninsula-arts.co.uk).

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